On January 1, 2024, the South Korean government launched a pilot program for digital nomad (or “workation”) visas. The pilot program will allow foreign nationals who work remotely for overseas corporations to live and work in South Korea for up to two years. With the introduction of the pilot program, South Korea joins several other countries – including Spain, Italy, Romania, Iceland, the United Arab Emirates, and Malaysia – in seeking to attract an increasingly mobile class of global talent through digital nomad visas.

Continue Reading South Korea Opens Pilot Program for Digital Nomad Visa
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Effective January 1, 2024, the Department of State has authorized consular officers to waive required in-person interviews for an expanded subset of visa applicants.

Interviews now may be waived for the following categories:

  • First-time H-2 visa applicants (temporary agricultural and non-agricultural workers). 
  • Visa applicants applying for any nonimmigrant visa classification, provided that the applicant:
    • was previously issued a nonimmigrant visa in any classification other than a B1/B2 visa; and
    • is applying within 48 months of their most recent nonimmigrant visa expiring.

To be eligible, all applicants seeking an interview waiver must:

  • Apply in their country of nationality or residence;
  • Have never been refused a visa (unless such refusal was overcome or waived); and
  • Have no apparent or potential ineligibility.

The authorization represents an expansion of candidates eligible for interview waiver.  In particular, consular officers previously had discretion to waive the in-person interview requirement only for individuals applying for renewal of nonimmigrant visas within 48 months of the prior US visa’s expiration date in the same visa classification.  The expansion permits waiver of interviews for individuals applying for nonimmigrant visas within 48 months of a prior US visa’s expiration date in any visa classification, with the exception of prior B1/B2 visas (for business visitors and tourists).

Waiver of in-person interviews is provided at the discretion of consular officers, who may still require in-person interviews on a case-by-case basis or because of local conditions.  We caution visa applicants that waiver of the in-person interview requirement does not guarantee faster visa processing by consular posts.

As of March 2024, the Schengen Area will partially expand through the lifting of air and sea border controls with Bulgaria and Romania. This marks the ninth expansion of the free movement zone, which most recently added Croatia in January 2023. Land border controls with Bulgaria and Romania will remain in place for the time being and the two countries will continue issuing national entry visas rather than Schengen visas. In announcing the expansion, the European Commission – the executive arm of the European Union – emphasized that discussions on lifting land border controls will continue in 2024.

Continue Reading Schengen Area Expands to Include Air & Sea Travel to Bulgaria & Romania

Effective January 1, 2024, Kosovo passport holders may travel to European Union member states in the Schengen Area without a passport, and may remain in Schengen territory for up to 90 days in any rolling 180-day period. EU passport holders are likewise now eligible to travel visa-free to Kosovo. The visa-free program includes travel to all EU member states that are part of the Schengen Area, as well as Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Romania, plus non-EU members Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland. Kosovo passport holders will still require visas for travel to Ireland, which is an EU member but outside the Schengen Area.

Continue Reading EU and Kosovo Launch Mutual Visa-Free Travel Program

Effective December 23, 2023, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has lifted Türkiye’s visa requirement for six countries: United States, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. Tourists from these countries are now permitted to spend 90 days out of a 180-day period in Türkiye without a visa. Previously, foreign nationals from these countries were required to obtain an e-visa for trade and tourism which could cost up to $78.50 depending on their nationality. The Presidential Decree was published on December 23, 2023, in the Resmî Gazete, the Official Gazette of the Republic of Türkiye.

On December 20, 2023, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) announced that it has updated its policy guidance on international students to consolidate and clarify existing policy regarding F and M nonimmigrant students. The updated guidance is in Volume 2, Part F, of the USCIS Policy Manual. Highlights include the following:

Nonimmigrant Intent

  • Per section 214(b) the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), international students in the F or M categories must intend to depart from the United States after a temporary period of stay and have a foreign residence that they have no intention of abandoning. Relying on the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual as authority, USCIS clarifies in its guidance that the foreign residence requirement should be adjudicated differently for students than for other nonimmigrants, considering that students typically lack the strong economic and social ties of more established applicants. For example, if a student had a foreign residence immediately prior to traveling to the United States, even if such residence was with parents, they may be considered to be maintaining a residence abroad if they have the present intent to depart the United States at the conclusion of their studies. Relying on the premise that most students are young, USCIS explains that international students are not expected to have long-range plans for after graduation, as long as the student presently has the intent to depart the US at the conclusion of approved activities. USCIS does not address whether older students who, for example, reside with spouses and children, can similarly qualify for the category without being able to articulate long-range plans.
  • USCIS further clarifies that an international student in F or M visa status may be the beneficiary of an approved or pending permanent labor certification application or immigrant petition and still be able to demonstrate their present intent to depart the US at the conclusion of approved activities, as the fact that the student’s intent may change in the future is not a sufficient reason to deny them student classification. Despite this interpretation of nonimmigrant intent by USCIS as it relates to F or M visa status, student visa applicants are cautioned that the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual, which controls adjudications of F and M visa applications at consular posts abroad, uses considerably less permissible language. Rather, the Foreign Affairs Manual indicates that, while a visa requiring nonimmigrant intent may be issued to an applicant with an active immigrant petition, it reminds officers that such a petition is “reflective of an intent to immigrate” and consular officers may not issue F or M visas if they have reason to believe the applicant intends to remain in the United States beyond their authorized period of stay. 9 FAM 401.1-3(E)(2).

Optional Practical Training (OPT)

  • USCIS specifies that an F student seeking an extension of optional practical training (OPT) based on a degree in a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) field may be employed by a startup company, as long as the employer adheres to the training plan requirements, remains in good standing with E-Verify, provides compensation commensurate to that provided to similarly situated U.S. workers, and has the resources to comply with the proposed training plan.  Notably, the updated guidance clarifies that alternative forms of compensation, such as stock options, may be permitted during a STEM OPT extension as long as the employer provides the same type of compensation to similarly situated US workers.  The requirements that the STEM OPT employer remain in good standing with E-Verify and have the resources and personnel required to appropriately train the F-1 student remain unchanged.

In this Law360 article, Mayer Brown Partner Carl Risch comments on the H-1B visa renewal pilot program introduced by the US Department of State.  “According to Mayer Brown partner Carl Risch, who was assistant secretary of state for consular affairs from 2017-2020, renewals became an issue once the COVID-19 pandemic led to processing backlogs in the H-1B program. With the resulting backlogs continuing to put pressure on consular staff and visa holders who need to renew, Risch said the pilot program is a win for both.”

After several months of improving processing times, the State Department announced yesterday that it is now processing routine U.S. passport applications in 6 to 8 weeks and expedited applications in only 2 to 3 weeks. This is a substantial, multi-week improvement from early November when the State Department last announced faster processing times. Notably, this represents a return to the same projected processing times in place in March 2020, immediately before the COVID-19 pandemic compelled the suspension of routine passport services for several months.

Despite the announcement, passport applicants are advised to apply as early as possible and to pay the extra fees for expedited service and return delivery.  As passport application volume historically dips in autumn, these continuously improving processing times may be temporary and could worsen in the first quarter of 2024.  

    

As of November 25, 2023, Australia’s Department of Home Affairs is moving forward with key updates to the country’s permanent residency pathway for temporary skilled workers. Under the changes, announced earlier this year, all subclass 482 visa holders are eligible to apply for permanent residency. Previously, subclass 482 visa holders in short-term occupations were unable to seek permanent residency. The changes also allow short-term subclass 482 visa holders to renew their visas indefinitely, and reduce the required employment period before seeking permanent residency from three years to two. The new policies are designed to provide more equitable access to permanent residency in Australia.

Continue Reading Australia Implements Changes to Permanent Residency Program

The State Department has recently extended the validity of certain visas for citizens of France, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Cuba.  This trend may signal an effort is underway to adjust visa validity periods for other nationalities and visa types.  Travelers are advised to monitor the State Department’s website for announced changes

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) requires the State Department, insofar as practicable, to “accord to such nationals the same treatment upon a reciprocal basis as such foreign country accords to nationals of the United States who are within a similar class.” INA 221(c), 8 USC section 1201(c). Accordingly, when determining the maximum validity periods for the different visa types for citizens of each country in the world, the State Department is required by law to match, whenever practicable, the validity periods provided to U.S. citizens by each country. For example, the Government of India permits the issuance of 10-year multiple-entry visas to U.S. citizens; therefore, the U.S. Government permits the issuance of 10-year multiple-entry visas to Indian citizens.

Based on this visa reciprocity law, the U.S. Embassy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) announced that, effective September 29, 2023, DRC citizens can receive two-year, multiple-entry tourist and student visas.  And most recently, the State Department increased the visa validity period for French E-1 and E-2 visa holders from 25-months to 48-months, partially reversing a 2019 downward adjustment from an original 60-month duration. 

However, in a rare exception to reciprocity, the U.S. Embassy in Cuba announced that, as of August 25, 2023, B2 (visitor) visas issued to Cuban nationals may be valid for up to five years and permit multiple entries into the United States, although U.S. citizens are only eligible for single-entry, three-month visas to Cuba. The practical effect of this change is yet to be seen, as the U.S. Embassy in Havana does not currently process B2 visas for tourist travel. 

In light of the State Department’s active review of visa reciprocity under INA 221(c), stakeholders in the U.S. visa system should anticipate more positive adjustments to visa reciprocity schedules.